The timing of a Senate trial for Donald Trump was cast into doubt as Republican and Democrat leaders in Congress traded barbs, a day after the historic House vote to impeach a president for only the third time in the country’s history.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, set off the dispute on Wednesday night when she refused to say when she would send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which is required for a trial. The move was seen as an attempt to pressure Republicans into accepting Democratic demands that White House officials who have not so far testified be called as witnesses.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, on Thursday responded by accusing Ms Pelosi of getting “cold feet”, stepping up the high-stakes game of chicken over the impeachment trial of the 45th president.
“Speaker Pelosi suggested that House Democrats may be too afraid . . . to even transmit their shoddy work product to the Senate,” Mr McConnell said. “The prosecutors are getting cold feet in front of the entire country.”
Ms Pelosi did not provide much more detail at a news conference on Thursday. But she indicated that the delay was tactical in order to pressure Republicans into letting witnesses to be called at the trial. She would name the “impeachment managers”, or Senate trial prosecutors, when she knew what Mr McConnell would do.
“The next thing for us will be when we see the process …in the Senate,” she said. “Then we’ll know the number of managers that we may have to go forward and who we would choose.”
Asked if she was concerned that a delay would spark criticism that the Democrats were playing games, Ms Pelosi said, “I don’t care what the Republicans say.”
The stand-off between Ms Pelosi and Mr McConnell — two of the shrewdest lawmakers in the US Congress — creates doubt about whether the Senate trial will proceed as originally planned in early January. While some Democrats urged the speaker to remain firm, others questioned whether her tactics would damage the case that the Democrats were making to the nation.
Mr Trump echoed the criticism of Ms Pelosi on Twitter: “Pelosi feels her phony impeachment HOAX is so pathetic she is afraid to present it to the Senate, which can set a date and put this whole SCAM into default if they refuse to show up!”
The president has struck a defiant tone in the midst of the impeachment proceedings, which entered a new phase on Wednesday evening after the House voted largely along party lines to approve two articles of impeachment, one of abuse of power, the other of obstructing the Congressional inquiry.
Mr McConnell and Charles Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, have been sparring over the ground rules for a trial. That continued on Thursday, as the Senate majority leader took aim at Mr Schumer for urging Republicans to call senior Trump administration officials, including secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, to testify.
“Earlier this week, Senator Schumer began searching for ways the Senate could . . . try to fix the House Democrats failures for them,” the Kentucky Republican said. He added that the impeachment process was a flimsy case that would just accelerate what he described as the “arms race of polarisation” in the US Congress.
Mr Schumer said in response that the Democrats just wanted an opportunity to hear from key witnesses who were banned by the White House from appearing before the House impeachment inquiry — a ban that was the basis of the article of impeachment alleging obstruction.
“I have yet to hear one good argument why less evidence is better than more evidence, particularly in such a serious moment as impeachment of the president,” Mr Schumer said.
“I’m very concerned that McConnell will do everything he can to brush this under the rug and avoid holding a real trial,” one House Democrat said. “I just don’t see how refusing to send the impeachment articles to the Senate gives us extra leverage.”
Tim Naftali, a presidential scholar and expert on Richard Nixon, who resigned as president in 1974 before being impeached, said it was not clear that Ms Pelosi would gain any leverage over Mr McConnell and the Republicans with her tactics.
“McConnell has every incentive to wait her out,” said Mr Naftali, a New York University professor. “I don’t see how the gambit works to the advantage of the impeachers. Why would McConnell give in to a public threat?”
He added that it was possible that Ms Pelosi did not want a trial so as to deny Mr Trump the chance for acquittal, or believed she had leverage because Mr Trump wanted a trial and would himself pressure Mr McConnell.
While Mr Trump entered the history books as only the third president to be impeached in the House, the chances of him being convicted in the Senate and removed from office are very remote. Mr Trump would need to lose the support of 20 Republicans in the Senate because a two-thirds majority is needed for any conviction.
The articles of impeachment charge Mr Trump with abusing his office by pressing his Ukrainian counterpart to launch investigations into political rival Joe Biden and into debunked theories that Kyiv, rather than Russia, intervened in the 2016 US election, as well as obstructing the congressional inquiry into the matter.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi